Robotic Surgery: A Complete Guide with Everything Worth Knowing

Updated on December 3, 2019

Would you trust a robot to remove your appendix? Would you trust one to perform a lifesaving surgical procedure?

It’s an unsettling thought for many of us, but it’s no longer the stuff of science fiction novels. Robotic surgery is a very real technology and it’s gaining traction throughout the world. 

If the thought of an operation performed by a robot makes you uneasy, you are not alone, but its high level of precision and magnification has many benefits. Healing time is also quicker with less visible scarring. 

It’s up to the individual patient and their doctor, of course. If you’re considering surgery performed with is technique, this guide provides further information to help you decide if it’s right for you.

What Is Robotic Surgery?

Robotic surgery is a minimally invasive surgical method that uses miniaturized surgical instruments. Minimally invasive surgery is a technique that uses the fewest number of cuts possible. These types of procedures require less recovery time and that healing time is generally more comfortable when compared to open surgeries.

In robotic surgery, the tiny surgical instruments get mounted on robotic arms. This allows the surgeon to make quarter-inch, “minimally invasive” incisions. This means that there is less trauma to the patient’s body. Even if you’re not anticipating surgery in the near future, this fascinating technology has many advantages. 

Also known as robot-assisted surgery, this technique uses the da Vinci Surgical System. The system got approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2000. Previously, the only other form of minimally invasive surgery was laparoscopic surgery. This was also done with small incisions and a high-resolution camera known as a laparoscope. This procedure still required the surgeon to operate the instruments. With robotic surgery, the surgeon directs the robot’s movements.

Increased Use

Over the past two decades, the surgical robotics market has expanded tremendously. Since the FDA’s approval, this surgery has been widely adopted by hospitals throughout the United States and Europe. Even so, the idea of robots performing surgery is still pretty scary to the average person. However, the Robotic Surgical System isn’t doing the surgery since it can’t think and make decisions on its own. The surgeon controls the entire process. Their precise hand and finger movements direct the robotic arms into performing specific actions.

To operate with the robotic system, your surgeon makes several small incisions into the patient’s body. Afterward, they insert miniaturized surgical instruments on three of the robot’s arms. A high-definition 3D camera gets placed on the fourth arm. Once everything is set up, the surgeon manipulates the instruments from a nearby console and performs the operation.

In traditional surgery, surgeons stand over the patient. This is not the case in robotic surgery. This shouldn’t make patients get nervous. The surgeon has a much better view of the surgical site since the monitor shows a highly magnified, high-definition image. The resulting view is far superior to what the human eye can provide. This gives surgeons more precision and control during the procedure. 

Increased Range and Motion

Another benefit of surgical robotics is greater dexterity of range and motion. The surgeon controls the robotic arms with their fingers on the master controls. They then manipulate them as they look into a stereoscopic high-definition monitor. Each movement they make is precisely replicated by the robotic arms. This means the system is doing exactly what your surgeon would be doing in a traditional procedure.

In many cases, surgical robots can do a better job than the average surgeon. When necessary, the scale of their movements gets changed for even greater precision. For example, your surgeon can choose a 3-to-1 scale so the tip of the robot’s arm moves just one inch for every three inches the surgeon moves their hand. 

A robotic surgical system also prevents surgeon fatigue—one of the most common reasons for surgical complications. Surgery is a highly complex and stressful procedure. It requires high levels of concentration. The robotic system’s console is specially designed to keep the surgeon’s eyes and hands perfectly aligned with their view of the surgical site. This eliminates the challenge of staying steady and focused, especially during longer procedures like heart surgeries. 

This technology allows surgeons to perform the most complex procedures. The types of procedures performed by robots include:

  • Gynecological
  • Colorectal
  • Thoracic
  • Closed-chest heart

These “open” surgeries typically require incisions that are six to eight inches in length. The incisions get made in highly sensitive areas such as the abdomen and chest. They may take many weeks or months to fully heal which causes the patient significant pain. They have difficulty performing even the most basic tasks while in recovery.

Fewer Complications

Due to smaller incisions, complications are greatly reduced with robotics in surgery. The risk of blood loss and the need for blood transfusions during and after the procedure gets reduced. This is important with heart surgery where the loss of blood during open-heart procedures can cause anemia and other life-threatening complications after the surgery.

The use of robot-assisted surgery is also beneficial to the recovery process. For example, smaller incisions take less time to heal, while leaving behind minimal scarring. Minimally invasive procedures also carry a lower risk of infection compared to surgeries involving large incisions. They’re also much less painful to deal with after the surgery, which means you can get back to your job and your daily activities sooner than you had anticipated.

Risks vs. Rewards

There are many benefits to robotic surgery, for the surgeon as well as the patient. As with any surgery, however, there is risk involved as well. Some robotic surgeries require the patient to be in an unnatural position during the procedure. This may cause complications. There is a risk that the robotic instruments may hit other organs and may also cause burning due to the electric current they produce.

For all these reasons, it’s important for patients to consult with their doctor or surgeon about all their options. 

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